Warren Buffett Hits Turbulence Betting on Airline Stocks

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Warren Buffett for years has been considered the greatest investor of the modern era. Having achieved the status of being world’s wealthiest person probably means you know a thing or two. One other well-known Buffett trait over the years was his hatred for airlines. That all changed in recent months when it became known that Buffett’s portfolio managers took big airline stakes for Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-A).

Late in 2016, those portfolio managers took rather substantial stakes in several of the largest airlines in America. While Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway were sitting on big profits, now those stakes have run into some serious turbulence. With a recent video of a battered passenger, some earnings warnings and then some poor follow-on earnings reactions, now all suddenly those big gains have dribbled lower and lower.

United’s violent ejection of a passenger and the police handling of the matter is likely to cost it millions upon millions of dollars. American then had an instance where a flight attendant nearly hit a baby. Southwest has had its share of customers tweeting out bad service at the gates. And the list of complaints against airlines goes on and on.

When Team Buffett decided to invest in Buffett’s hated sector, they must have thought that airlines would see clear skies forever. After all, airlines have regional monopolies or oligopolies. New competitors often cannot buy terminal gates at major airports. Airlines can charge you whatever fees they want. They keep taking away seating space. They can charge endlessly for baggage. And they can dream up even more fees, and then get their former CEOs to go on the major media saying they need even less competition.

The latest hit comes from confirmation of earnings trends, higher fuel prices and even some good old-fashioned labor cost pressure.

24/7 Wall St. has outlined the stakes taken by Berkshire Hathaway, as well as how the stocks have acted on Thursday, April 27, and how far down these are from 52-week highs.

Delta Airlines Inc. (NYSE: DAL), which was shown to be a 7.5% stake of some 54.9 million shares, also was shown to have a cost basis of $2.299 billion. That stake was worth some $2.702 at the end of 2016. On Thursday, its shares were down 1.25% at $45.79, which is down over 13% from the 52-week high of $52.76. While Delta has talked up a durable business model, its management previously told investors that 2017 is a transition year for the company’s business in which margins would likely contract.

United Continental Holdings Inc. (NYSE: UAL) was last seen down 1.4% at $70.30 on Thursday, and down 8.5% from the 52-week high of $76.80. After how the company has handled the battered doctor case, it is lucky not to be down even more. United Continental was an 8.4% stake (26.62 million shares) with a cost basis of $1.477 billion and a year-end value of $1.94 billion.

American Airlines Group Inc. (NASDAQ: AAL) was a stake of 45.54 million shares at the end of 2016, with a 2016 year-end market value of $2.124 billion. Earnings were okay, but higher labor costs have investors worried that airlines might become hostage to their employees again. A drop of about 5.2% to $43.99 on Thursday was bad enough, but that is down over 13% from the 52-week high of $50.64.

It was portfolio managers Todd Combs or Ted Weschler who originally took the airline stakes. Buffett himself then directed for Berkshire Hathaway to purchase shares of Southwest Airlines Co. (NYSE: LUV) as well. The end of 2016 report showed that Southwest Airlines was a 7.0% stake of about 43.2 million shares. That cost basis was $1.757 billion, and it was worth $2.153 billion at year’s end. Southwest shares were down 1.2% at $56.26 after earnings and after saying it would not overbook flights. Southwest is doing better versus the drop of 6% against the 52-week high of $59.68.